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Ruth Slenczynska Biography

Collection | Papers | Discography | Record Log | Photographs |

Photo of pianist signed

Ruth Slenczynska, American pianist, was born in Sacramento, California on January 15, 1925. Her father, Josef Slenczynski, a violinist, imposed a rigorous and disciplinary practice routine on her beginning at age three. She gave her first recital at age four and took lessons with Arthur Schnabel, Egon Petri, Alfred Cortot, Joseph Hofmann, and even performed for Sergei Rachmaninoff. She performed her debut in Berlin at age six, and made her debut in Paris with a full orchestra at age seven. She became an instant musical sensation in Europe, heralded as the first child prodigy since Mozart. However, the strain of practice and the touring schedule imposed upon her by her father caused great emotional stress upon her, and by the age of fifteen she withdrew from performing.

Ms. Slenczynska applied and was accepted to the University of California where she met fellow student George Born. The two eloped after a short engagement in 1944 and remained married until 1953 when the marriage ended in divorce. In 1954 the artist resumed her concert career and established herself as a pianist of impeccable technique and considerable musical insight. In 1964 she accepted a full time position at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville as Artist-in-Residence, a title she retained until 1987. Ms. Slenczynska married in 1967 to Dr. James Kerr, a professor of political science at SIUE. She published a book of memoirs, Forbidden Childhood (NY, 1957), which deals with life as a child prodigy, and a book on piano technique, Music at Your Fingertips: Aspects of Pianoforte Technique (NY, 1961).

Ruth's life changed dramatically with the death of her beloved husband in 2001. She completed her remaining part-time teaching assignments at the university, moved to New York City, and accepted an Artist-in-Residence teaching position at Soochow University in Taipei, Taiwan for the 2002-2003 academic year. While in Taiwan, Ruth was invited to perform in Japan, a first for the 78-year-old pianist. This led to subsequent trips to Japan and a highly acclaimed series of six CD recordings under the Liu MAER label, entitled "The Art of Ruth Slenczynska." The fourth CD in the series was recorded in Okayama one week after her 80th birthday. The program included the Chopin Ballades and Scherzi and ten selections from Prokofiev's ballet "Cinderella," Op. 97.

In May 2005, Ruth Slenczynska culminated her 80th birthday year public performances with a "final" three-concerto program with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra. There she performed the Liszt piano concerto #1, Chopin's Piano Concerto #2, and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 to an enthusiastic capacity audience.

Although not giving large public piano concerts any more, Ruth Slenczynska maintains an active musical life. She teaches private students in New York City, gives master classes, and acts as a juror for various piano competitions. Ruth shared insights of her teaching philosophy with her former student, Karen Tobias, in the article, " Madam Ruth," (Clavier, April 2007). The pianist returned to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on September 24, 2010 when she performed on the Music Department's new Steinway concert grand, which is dedicated in her husband's memory. The next day, Ms. Slenczynska recounted her memorable experiences of notable musicians and world leaders. Two weeks later, she gave a recital and an auto-biographical lecture at San José State University. In December, she returned to California for a performance at the Pacific Musical Society Centennial Gala at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. A recent video entitled "Living Legends: Ruth Slenczynska" was produced by the society to honor Ms. Slenczynska using photos from the Ruth Slenczynska Collection and an interview conducted by members of the Pacific Musical Society. To view the video, click on the title above. 

Ruth Slenczynska was featured in a Wall Street Journal article and an accompanying video on October 28, 2014. To view the article, go to the following link.

In 2017, after returning from a performing visit to Japan, the pianist was featured in two 30-minute documentaries produced by NHK Japan TV in Okayama. 

In January 2018, Ms. Slenczynska celebrated her 93rd birthday. She returned to SIUE the second week of January for the first time since September 2010. She presented a recital in Dunham Auditorium on Tuesday, January 9, 2018, and conducted a piano master class the following day. An exhibit about the pianist's life and career, derived from the Ruth Slenczynska Collection, was mounted through the month of January in Lovejoy Library.

Written and updated by
Therese Zoski Dickman
Fine Arts Librarian / Associate Professor
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
March 12, 2018

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